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Global History of Religions: Methodological Probings

Panel Chair: Sven Bretfeld | Tuesday, August 25, 3:30-5:30 p.m.

The recent terminological change from "inter-cultural" to "trans-cultural" points to the assessment of cultures as relational products continuously shaped and negotiated by encounter and exchange processes. This approach, commonly addressed as "Global History", can fruitfully be employed in Religious Studies. However, a "Global History of Religions" yields special methodological problems. For example, how can religions be studied while comparative categories – cultures, nations, religions – no longer refer to entities, but relationships and procedural dynamics? The panel probes into these methodological issues focusing the history of "religions" in "Asia".

Karenina Kollmar-Paulenz 

Dancing in the Middle of the Market-Place: Negotiating "Religion" through Dance in 17th Century Tibet – and Today

One of the most influential instruction manuals on Tibetan religious dance (Cham) written, among others, by the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century, admonishes its readers to practise the dance in the "true way" and not to consider it as a "show or play" merely to entertain people in the marketplace. The admonition is part of an intra-religious polemic discourse about the adequacy of publicly performing – and thus exposing – secret religious teachings to a broader uninitiated public. By drawing on Tibetan cham manuals and field data from Tibetan exile communities and Mongolia, this paper seeks to explore how religious traditions are established and affirmed, but at the same time constantly challenged and negotiated through ritual performances in trans-regional settings.

Sven Bretfeld

Tantric Theravāda: Maritime Connections in the Indian Ocean and the Scholarly Interest of Mapping "World Religions"

Recent research highlights the historical role of Tantric Buddhism – sometimes called Vajrayāna or Esoteric Buddhism – on the maritime trade routes between South and Southeast Asian cultures. In many respects new findings and considerations challenge traditional historical accounts and force us to review "Indo-centric" and "Sino-centric" maps as the spatial framework in which Buddhist history takes place. This paper surveys the evidence for the assumption that during the 8th/9th centuries Theravāda traditions belonged to the major promoters of Tantric Buddhism among the cultures of the Indian Ocean. It proceeds towards methodological reflections on modern history-writing and concept-building starting from the question why "Tantric Theravāda" sounds so weird to the modern ear. In the analysis due attention will be given to the triangular relationship between translocal entanglement, religious self-assertion and the construction of comparative categories in the Study of Religion.

Raya Schifferle-Stoyanova

Revolutionary Buddhist? Isidanzinvangjil: A Critical Mongolian Lama on the Eve of the Collapse of the Qing Empire

Isidanzinvangjil (1854-1907) is an outstanding Mongolian Buddhist poet and physician at the turn of the 20th century. Building upon the Tibeto-Mongolian gnomic and didactic literary tradition, Isidanzinvangjil's teaching verses amplified the nature and the scope of the Buddhist moralizing poetry (surghal shilüg). His scathing criticism denounced not only individual behavior, but also burning socio-political issues and practices, especially those linked to the Buddhist clergy and the ruling elite. The paper explores Isidanzinvangjil's Buddhist ethical views, expressed in his "Golden teaching" (altan surghal), in the context of his personal life history and in relation to his own moral agency. A special focus will be on the interactions with his Mongolian social environment that was deeply entangled in the geopolitical and ideological dynamics of the waning years of the Qing Dynasty, thus going beyond the usual analysis of a bi-polar "Qing center-periphery" and "East-West" axes.

Piotr Sobkowiak

Mongolian "Religion of the Shamans" as a Construct of a Non-European Discursive Tradition

Taking as an example the discursive construct of a "religion of the shamans" (mong. böge-ner-ün šasin), this paper deals with the history of taxonomical and discursive processes, which re-shaped the objects of Mongolian religious reality. The act of singling out the agents of the traditional Mongolian believes in the Buddhist-influenced socio-political environment reached its peak during the Qing and Russian rule over the Mongolian peoples. The paper will give an overview of the thesis, which makes an assumption that "shamanism" should be understood neither as an emic phenomenon belonging to Mongolian culture, nor a post-colonial conglomerate developed in the Western academic environment, but rather as a construct of a discursive process taking place on the interface of the Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese and Russian cultures. The importance of Asian epistemological traditions should become a meaningful aspect in the study of a "global history of religions".


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